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ISKCON's Future: Could a Bi-cameral GBC Help?

By: on Jan. 10, 2009

When the founding fathers of the United States gathered to formalize the Constitution in 1787, there was a sharp divide between the proposals put forward by the Union's larger and smaller states.

The larger states favored the "Virginia Plan" whereby the number of representatives in the parliament was based on population, thus giving stronger representation to the larger states; while the smaller states favored the "New Jersey Plan" which gave equal representation to each state, regardless of population.

After almost six weeks of vigorous debate, the States finally agreed to a compromise: the new government would be a bicameral system made up of two chambers, an upper house, the Senate and a lower house, the House of Representatives. In the upper house, each State would have an equal vote; in the lower house, representation would be proportional to population, with each State having one representative for every 40,000 inhabitants.

Following the example of the United States, federally based systems around the world have adopted a bicameral legislature, where the two chambers have differing methods of representing the constituents. These are generally along the lines of the U.S. system of having an upper house with equal representation for States, and a lower house with representation of geographical areas based purely on population. Examples of this can be seen in the political systems of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, India, Malaysia, Mexico and many other countries.

Bicameralism has also been used to fuse together an aristocratic and democratic system. The best known example of this is the British system, where historically the House of Lords was made up of hereditary positions representing the Nobles, while seats in the House of Commons were elected positions, representing the common people.

Underlying all of these uses is the practical fact that having a bicameral system allows for a second chance to modify important legislation, and allows for a different perspective on the legislation.

So how is all of this relevant to ISKCON and how, if at all, could ISKCON take advantage of the political apparatus of a bicameral system?

Many devotees, senior leaders and more junior members alike, are seeing the need for a plan of succession to lead ISKCON into the future, but there are two seemingly opposing imperatives that need to be reconciled: ISKCON needs to retain the strength of its traditions and the maturity and wisdom of its elders, while simultaneously empowering the next generation to take up the mantle of leadership and push on the movement in new and dynamic ways.

In the same way that a bicameral system facilitated representation of both aristocracy and commoners in Britain, and small and large States in the U.S., a bicameral system for ISKCON may facilitate the elders to oversee the ISKCON legacy, while facilitating the younger generation to take the reigns of management with youthful vigor, as their predecessors did in the 1970's.

So what would such a system look like, and how does it fit in with Srila Prabhupada's vision for ISKCON?

Srila Prabhupada set up the GBC as the "ultimate managerial authority" for ISKCON, and therefore it would be inappropriate and problematic to set up another body higher than the GBC. However, it would be possible to modify the structure of the GBC while still following Srila Prabhupada's will of having the GBC as the ultimate managerial authority.

One proposal would be to create a bicameral GBC, with the lower house being called the GBC Assembly, and the upper house the GBC Senate.

The lower house would be comprised of the GBC Secretaries who are directly managing their zones, and the upper house would be comprised of the GBC Senators. Resolutions passed by the GBC Assembly would need to also be approved by the GBC Senate, before becoming ISKCON law. The Senate would be able to make proposals, but they would also need to pass both chambers.

GBC members who don"t want to be engaged in direct management can continue to serve on the GBC Senate and make a very meaningful contribution to the running of the society. At the present moment, the title of GBC Emeritus has been awarded to such senior members, but some of these members themselves note that they are "out of the loop" and don"t have much direct involvement in framing ISKCON policies and laws. Under this system we have had such senior, experienced devotees as Hridayananda Goswami, Mukunda Goswami, Bhurijana Prabhu and Giriraja Swami having little involvement in GBC matters. It may be easier for such experienced devotees to share their vast wisdom and experience with the society, while at the same time not being overly burdened with daily management tasks, if they were GBC Senators.

For the younger generation, a bicameral GBC would allow more scope for them to take ownership of the mission by becoming GBC secretaries, while having the guidance of their superiors above them.

In the legal document "Direction of Management" issued by Srila Prabhupada on May 28th, 1970, which set up the GBC, the document listed 34 centers of ISKCON, and Srila Prabhupada named 12 GBC members to govern the society, a proportion of roughly 3 centers for each GBC secretary. While you would not expect this exact proportion of GBC's to centers to continue indefinitely, it is interesting to compare this situation to that of today.

Today ISKCON is made up of 300 temples, 40 rural communities, and 80 restaurants in 71 countries; over 400 centers worldwide, with around 40 GBC's responsible for the entire organization. If the same proportion of GBC's to centers was maintained as in 1970, the current number of GBC secretaries would be around 130. While this fact alone is not a strong argument to greatly expand the number of GBC secretaries, it does lend weight to the idea of a bicameral GBC with many more secretaries to represent the devotees. Such a system would allow for newer members to contribute and take ownership of ISKCON's future, while also facilitating much better representation of devotees in GBC decision making processes.

One proposal would be to have a GBC Senate consisting of roughly 40 or so senior devotees, with a GBC Assembly of approximately 80 devotees who have shown their expertise in managing the society.

Varnasrama considerations

This system can also be analyzed as being closer to the ideals of the Vedic social organization as given by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita. In a broad sense of social organization, the GBC Senate would represent the brahminical principles of wisdom and guidance without getting too involved in daily management. At the same time, the GBC Senate would institutionalize the notion that the brahmanas can, when required, use their brahminical tejas to rectify the ksatriyas, and ensure they are correctly applying the sastra.

The GBC Assembly would naturally be more akin to the ksatriyas who are engaged in day to day management and leadership, and therefore are working under the principle of utility to get the mission achieved in a practical way.

At the present moment, the same group of devotees is taking the brahminical role of being the spiritual head of society, while at the same time acting as administrators. This is not ideal according to the prescription for peaceful working of society as given in the Vedas, which is founded on a separation of the roles of brahmanas and ksatriyas.

The Srimad Bhagavatam deals extensively with the relationships between brahmanas and ksatriyas, and how they cooperate synergistically to order society in a progressive fashion. While we all have to "do the needful" as the mission requires, in later years especially, Srila Prabhupada repeatedly stressed that he wanted ISKCON to implement the essential elements of the Varnasrama system for the peaceful organization of the society.

There has been much talk within ISKCON about implementing Varnasrama Dharma on many levels, but it can be argued that if Varnasrama is not implemented on the top level, i.e. by separating the brahminical and ksatriya functions of the governing apparatus, then it is almost impossible to implement these principles throughout the rest of the ISKCON society.

The system of bicameral chambers of the GBC also has implications for the functioning of the ashrams. At the present moment, the executive management function is primarily being handled by sannyasis. In the early days of the movement, Srila Prabhupada had his householder devotees perform most of the direct management, and there are many cases in ISKCON history, under Srila Prabhupada, where devotees who took sannyasa also gave up their managerial functions to be free to preach and travel unhindered. Srila Prabhupada also many times stated that the sannyasis are the natural spiritual leaders of society, while the householders were natural administrators, being already involved in the care of the social fabric of families, women and children.

While we have unbounded respect for the individuals who are the spiritual leaders of the society, looking from an objective perspective, it is not ideal to have a society which is primarily administered by (on a purely Varnasrama analysis) persons in the role of sannyasi-ksatriyas. Such a situation can lead to dissatisfaction for all concerned: the sannyasis can get caught up in the minutiae of daily management and dealing with social/householder issues, rather than being free to preach on the spiritual platform and travel with a peaceful mind to enlighten the householders, while the householders may tend to feel that the leadership does not understand their issues. Ideally, sannyasis would act as trusted counsel to householder administrators. In this way, they maintain their influential role in society by giving much needed advice to those who take on the burden of daily management. Moreover, many of sannyasis would act as diksha guru for the grihastha ksatriyas; thus they'd naturally assume a role as a spiritual mentor.


It may be observed that when the movement was progressing very dynamically in the 70's, the system of management was in fact more like the system discussed above. When Srila Prabhupada was personally overseeing the movement, enthusiastic young devotee managers took the role of GBC's and spread the movement very dynamically, while Srila Prabhupada gave them all encouragement and responsibility, but still oversaw their work and retained the ultimate right to occasionally modify or annul some of their resolutions if he saw the need.

It may be that instituting a bicameral system for the GBC could help to continue a healthy and dynamic managerial process for ISKCON into the future; allowing for the preservation of ISKCON's strength and traditions, while facilitating the next generation to take responsibility for expanding the mission.

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